The second Monday of October is perhaps best known in the United States as Columbus Day, a celebration of the famous explorer—and of Italian-American and immigrant heritage. But today also marks Indigenous Peoples’ Day, honoring Native American cultures and histories across the country. Over the weekend, members of the Yale community gathered at an event organized by the Association of Native Americans at Yale to show respect for indigenous peoples here on this continent before Christopher Columbus arrived.
Yale and its home city sit at the intersection of the different histories represented by these two observances. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization founded in New Haven, was instrumental in influencing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to establish Columbus Day as a national holiday in 1937. Meanwhile, Yale’s connections to Native American history are older than Yale itself. Abraham Pierson the elder—whose son was rector of the Collegiate School, later renamed Yale—wrote a pamphlet on Christianity in 1659 that included a line-by-line translation into the local Quiripi language. Yale’s seventh president, Ezra Stiles (B.A. 1746, M.A. 1749), traveled throughout the region sketching, observing, and talking with Native Americans. His maps, drawings, and notebooks are an important source for scholars today.
Jay Gitlin ’71, ’02 Ph.D.—a lecturer in the Department of History and associate director of the Howard R. Lamar Center—has called New Haven a “native place” and a “frontier city.” Of course, relations with neighboring tribes were not always friendly, and disease, war, and pressure from growing settler communities all took their toll on the Quinnipiac and other Native peoples who had long lived in the region.
While we celebrate Yale’s scholarly resources on Native Americans, the printed materials for the Yale football game on Saturday contained offensive depictions of Native Americans, and this unfortunate incident reminds us of the necessity to educate our community about respecting and valuing Native American culture and experience. The Department of Athletics has offered sincere apologies for this error. Robert Penn Warren, the novelist and poet and a longtime professor of English at Yale, wrote, “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” This is also the mission of an educational institution such as Yale: only through inquiry, discussion, and the free exchange of ideas can we make sense of all that differentiates us—and all that we have in common.